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World: Top Women Correspondents Discuss Challenges, Advantages Of Covering Conflicts

  • Nikola Krastev

Before 1970, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, only 6 percent of war correspondents were women. By 1992, that figure had topped 30 percent. And participants say that in the past 12 years, the number of women war reporters seems to have grown even larger. A panel of accomplished female war correspondents recently gathered to share their experiences with students at the New School University in New York. They discussed the advantages that many women correspondents feel they have in reporting from conflict zones, but noted that safety for all foreign correspondents has deteriorated in recent months. Reporting from Iraq, they say, has been a particular challenge.

New York, 9 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Deborah Amos says there was a time when women reporters felt safer than their male colleagues in Iraq because they could dress themselves in traditional Arab clothing and blend in with the crowds.

But Iraqis have now learned to easily identify female foreigners in traditional dress. And they now appear to have broken a cultural barrier by kidnapping women, says Amos, who covers Iraq for U.S.-based National Public Radio and the U.S. television network ABC News.

Amos spoke recently at the New School University in New York on a panel with other women correspondents. She recalled how women journalists used to feel relatively safe, but says this attitude is changing, due to incidents such as the kidnapping of British aid worker Margaret Hassan in Iraq last month.
"I wouldn't have given it up for anything, but it's a job that really takes a tremendous toll, I think. It's very difficult to keep going to places where terrible things are happening and to keep talking to people, to keep hearing the stories."

"In the early days, it didn't occur to any of us that we were targets of kidnappers. In fact, we took some comfort in that there would be no women kidnapped in that part of the world. Up till then, I always felt that if I was kidnapped by an Arab man, I would say that I was going to tell his mother and that would be the end of it. Because culturally, it is simply not done. And this last month has shown -- the last two months have shown -- that that cultural barrier has certainly been broken," Amos said.

One of the highest-profile journalists covering the battle for Al-Fallujah is a woman -- CNN's Baghdad Bureau chief Jane Arraf, who is embedded with the U.S. Army.

Stacy Sullivan is a senior editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in countries in transition. She covered the Balkans for "Newsweek" magazine during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Compared to Iraq, Sullivan said she felt much safer in war-torn Yugoslavia.

"There were actually very few disadvantages and a lot of advantages. As a woman, you'd probably be more likely to get past a checkpoint that a Bosnian soldier was guarding. Or if you were detained, the worst that would happen was that they'd want to sort of flirt with you, hang out with you. I really did feel like it was more of an advantage [to be a woman] there," Sullivan said.

Elizabeth Rubin, a writer for "The New York Times Magazine," was one of the panel participants.

"There is that advantage in very traditional locations. In Afghanistan, I could go into the back of the house -- you know, women and men are separated in the house -- and there's often an entire village you don't even realize behind the wall of the house. And [I could] see a completely different world than my male counterparts. I think some of that's changing, but I think that's the same in Saudi Arabia, as well. It's very difficult for a male journalist to have access to women. Women [reporters] are becoming a much greater part of the story there," Rubin said.

Another participant was Emma Daly, a former Balkan correspondent for the British newspaper "The Independent" and a foreign correspondent for "The New York Times." When she was reporting on conflicts in Central America, Daly said it was not uncommon to be patronized and dismissed as a "silly young thing." But Daly said that such attitudes could, at times, be quite useful.

Daly said she and her husband, a photographer, began covering the world's hot spots while they were in their 20s. She said she relishes her experiences but noted they came at a cost.

"I wouldn't have given it up for anything, but it's a job that really takes a tremendous toll, I think. It's very difficult to keep going to places where terrible things are happening and to keep talking to people, to keep hearing the stories. It can have quite a profound effect on the people who do this kind of a job. And it's very hard to sustain anything else while you're doing this kind of work. It's very hard to leave it at the end of the day and go home to something different," Daly said.

One clear fact seems to separate female correspondents from their male counterparts, however. Daly -- the only mother among the panel participants -- said her pregnancy effectively ended her career as a war correspondent.